Five questions: Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster CEO Sue Paish

The CEO of the B.C.-based Canada's Digital Technology Supercluster shares her vision for the business-led effort

Credit: Kagan McLeod

How the B.C.-based initiative will help fuel R&D investment

1. What is Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster?
It’s the coming to life of courageous public policy from the federal government that is designed to do a number of things. One is to encourage and promote the scaling up of small and medium-sized Canadian enterprises, especially in the field of digital technology.

The second is to produce platforms, processes and technologies in the digital space that are marketable domestically and internationally, and thereby grow our presence in the international marketplace as the leader in digital technologies, and grow our GDP and jobs.

The third is to change the way we do business. In British Columbia we still do most of our business either as an individual organization or sometimes in partnership with another organization. What the Supercluster does is create a truly collaborative environment where at least three organizations, one of whom is a small company, work together. In that way, we are dramatically changing the way we come up with ideas and implement ideas into real business initiatives.

2. Why is B.C. a digital technology leader?
B.C. has a long history of being a strong environment for startups and the innovative thinking that comes around that. B.C. has a long history of exceptional talent because of the startup culture and also because we clearly have a strong talent pool in digital. And when we think of digital historically, we think of the entertainment industry—digital games, movies, et cetera.

It’s no accident that leaders in the digital space, whether it’s Electronic Arts or Sony or Microsoft or even Amazon now, have come to establish significant operations in B.C. It’s because they know that we have the talent here. And the digital talent that grew up in the video game and the entertainment industry, that talent is transportable to other forms of digital, whether it’s natural resources or precision health.

3. What do you say to people who are skeptical about the federal government putting up $950 million to fund the national Innovation Superclusters Initiative, which consists of five superclusters across the country?
We haven’t considered ourselves leaders as a nation in technology, in innovation and in scaling startups. And so the federal government has said we are going to invest $950 million, and we’re going to ask the private sector to lead it. You’ve got a choice: as a government you can either make an investment that is founded on good due diligence and do something that hasn’t been done before and really drive it to success, or you can wait for the world to take us over on that front.

The second thing I would say is, the very thought that we now have over 700 organizations signed up to be involved in the Digital Technology Supercluster out of British Columbia says to me that organizations see merit in this initiative.

4. With some experts sounding the alarm about Canada’s declining R&D spending, how much will the Superclusters Initiative help reverse that trend?
If you look at the rate of investment that we see in R&D across Canada and in B.C. over the past 10 years relative to the U.S. or the rest of the world, that’s alarming. So is our productivity rate; that gap is broadening. This gives us an opportunity to encourage and incent investment in research and development and innovation, and I’m hopeful that the fact that we’ve got so many organizations prepared to invest in this initiative suggests that they see a benefit and we’ll see an increase in investment in that area.

5. What challenges will Canada face as it seeks to lead in technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and virtual and augmented reality?
The risk we face is that our humility, which is a very desirable quality, can become a drag on our success and celebrating our success. We will never as a country be boastful or arrogant—nor do we want to be. But let’s take stock of the success that we’ve had, and let’s celebrate the fact that we’ve got the world’s only functioning quantum computer [at Burnaby-based D-Wave Systems] and we are the birthplace of real AI, and let’s build on that.

? PREVIOUS ROLES CEO, LifeLabs Medical Laboratory Services; CEO, Pharmasave; managing partner, Fasken
? FAVOURITE CONCERT Perhaps most memorable was an impromptu Eagles set outside Rockefeller Center in New York
FAVOURITE PLACE IN B.C. The Pacheedaht First Nation on Vancouver Island at Port Renfrew
? HOBBY I love cooking weekend family dinners for our three daughters and the guys in their lives